Ian Anderson has never stopped touring or recording music and continues to play the music of Jethro Tull, but for the past 20 years it has been under his solo name. The Zealot Gene, Anderson’s latest release, is the first album under the Jethro Tull brand in two decades and it may be one of his best.
At a time when many of his contemporaries are also releasing successful studio albums, it seems as though classic rock is going through a renaissance. Who says rock is dead?
“Too Old To Rock and Roll” at age 74. Thoughts about that song?
Well, the song was written about the experience of a very turbulent flight somewhere over the Midwest of America and being a little fearful of flying, the thought went in to my head, “I’m too old to rock and roll too young to die”. It was just a momentary flash and I remembered it but I thought I should write it down just in case I forgot. But it wasn’t anything to do initially with anything other than the thought of imminent death.
But then as a title for a song, it tossed up some other suggestions which I then pursued in the lyric about a fictitious character who was wedded to his past, and the styles and fashions of his youth to find himself somewhat marginalized and an object of curiosity or even derision. That was a long step from the initial idea of the title, but sometimes you get an idea for a song, and by the time you’ve gotten around to pursuing it, you’ve taken it in a different direction.
Years later, there are a lot of rock musicians like you who are playing well into their 70s, even 80s and they don’t seem too old to rock and roll. I saw the Stones two years ago, and they just blew me away, which, probably when I was in my 20s, I would have thought somebody in their 40s was too old to rock and roll.
It probably has something I have in common with members of the Rolling Stone since I grew up at a time when the music that was I suppose our choice in terms of what we were moved by, rather than tacky, English, pop music, or even perhaps some of the more commercial side of Americana, we grew up with a passion about American jazz and blues.
The introduction for me to music was more immediately moving than the music of English or Scottish folk music or the church. However, those things came back into the mix later on when I was a professional musician, but the initial starting point was that kind of music, they tended to be played by old guys.
Many of the people I listened to when I was a teenager were already seriously old people in their 60s or 70s, or some of them had already died by then. I thought that it was perfectly normal to revere the music by people who are much older than me.
I just grew up with the assumption really that the stuff I liked was played by old guys and I think that never got in the way of my interest in music and perhaps led me to believe that if I was successful, to achieve and maintain a career as a professional musician, that one day, I might be one of those old guys and still playing.
I think right from the beginning I thought of music as a journey that might be a job for life, rather than something you just did for a few years and then retired to open a bar in a small town in the West Country of England or whatever you might do.
You’ve done very well in that respect. Twenty-two studio albums as Jethro Tull and six solo albums – 28 studio albums total. Your latest album, The Zealot Gene, it sounds very classic Jethro Tull to me.
A lot of people have said that. It’s not something I really stopped to think about but inevitably there are going to be some stylistic relationships with previous albums and in a more obvious way, I suppose the sound of the flute is a major trigger for most people in thinking, “Oh, Jethro Tull.” I mean, I’m not the only flute player in the world of rock music, but on the other hand, there aren’t that many that have given the flute that prominence in rock music.
It’s tended to be perhaps just a decorative instrument or something that was a curiosity, usually by people who primarily played a different instrument, and flute was just an added extra. I think from pretty much the word go I tried to give the flute a prominent role and give it an equal strength in terms of the arrangements as you would afford to the guitar if you were writing music, so the flute was playing big riffs and solos pretty much from the beginning.
What made you decide to release an album under the band name Jethro Tull, after the past decade or so of basically putting Jethro Tull to rest?
Jethro Tull wasn’t put to rest, Jethro Tull was the banner headline playing concerts throughout the world really and in all the years there’ll be some concerts that I’ve done as Ian Anderson rather than Jethro Tull, but they’ve tended to be when the repertoire was not mainly Jethro Tull music or completely Jethro Tull music.
For me what the difference is, if I’m going to play Jethro Tull repertoire, then I would tend to bill it as Jethro Tull. It might say, Ian Anderson presents or something, just to remind people that I am still there, and it’s not a tribute band but that’s been the case all along.
In 2014, I released an album called Homo Erraticus which, in retrospect, should have really been a Jethro Tull album because it was the same guys who have been playing with me for a while up to that point, and then went on to play on The Zealot Gene. These same musicians have been playing hundreds and hundreds of concerts as Jethro Tull but never actually been on an album released simply as Jethro Tull so I thought I should put that right.
I made that decision right at the point when I started working on the album back in 2017. I may have evasively said when people asked, “What’s this going to be, a solo album or Jethro Tull album?”, “Well, I haven’t really decided yet”, but I wrote it as a band album.
We recorded the first seven tracks early in 2017 and I finished four of them during the course of the year between the tours but just didn’t get round to booking studio and rehearsal time to do the last five and then the pandemic was on us and eventually ended up with my recording the last five at home in March, April of last year.
Then some of the other guys sent in their contributions as audio files that I could incorporate into the final mix before presenting it to a record company and with all the artwork in June of last year, and then had another long wait because of the enormity of the delay in vinyl pressing and manufacture these days because there are so few of those traditional plants left operating in the world and everybody, young artists and old alike want to release their product on vinyl. There’s been this huge problem with a bottleneck really in the system.
Do you record analog or digital? I think some older artists have stuck with the analog style of recording despite all the advances in technology.
Hmm, well, that’s interesting. The world of digital recording really began I suppose around the mid-80s and in 86, when I was recording Crest of a Knave, that was mastered on digital, the formats that existed in that day which were not quite what they are these days, but the mixing was done to both 30 inch per second half inch tape, and also to a new digital format that Sony had come up with. I mixed the albums in a digital format but the multi-tracks were analog at that point.
But then around the turn of the decade it started to become a little more sophisticated. There were a number of multi-track formats available and I started work really on the fully fledged digital stuff with not only digital recording, but a digital mixer as well somewhere around 94 or 95.
I rather like the fact that there are some things that don’t have to change, that we can appreciate the engineering excellence and the functionality of a whole lot of perhaps mundane tools of the trade.
A hammer is still in the toolkit of your average carpenter or a plumber and a wrench. Some of this stuff just goes on and on. I like the permanence of certain things but on the other hand, in the world of technology and music making there are always going to be evolutions but the big changes came in a rush really between the mid-80s to the mid-90s. Since then, everything has just been marginal refinements of what was already in place.
After all these years, you’ll still find people playing traditional guitar amplifiers with tubes. You’ll still see not only the Fender Strat and the Gibson Les Paul, but all the multitude of derivatives of those two guitar designs. 99% of anything that you might call an electric guitar is based on one or the other of those types of instruments. There’s something rather satisfying about the permanence of musical instruments, at least the analog ones and those that are purely electronic don’t seem to have quite that appeal for anybody, they are merely tools of the trade, but you can love your electric guitar. I don’t know that anybody loves the electronic keyboards.
There’s a whole generation now that’s gravitated towards classic rock music and collecting Vinyl. When CDs first came out, digital music, I was impressed by the clarity and I thought, “Oh, well, we have to go this way because no more hissing and crackling on records, but I think over time It just seems sterile and you lose a lot of the nuances of that old technology and I think that’s what’s drawing people back.
Well, that was 16-bit technology. When the CD came about it was an improvement over vinyl in terms of its clarity and transparency, but it didn’t have the dynamic range of vinyl. However, 24-bit digital recording came along and that was a whole game changer because all those extra eight bits aren’t just a little bit better, they are hugely, hugely better and 24-bit is really what we still tend to use today although there’s not much point in going beyond 24 bit and I would argue 48kHz sampling rate because the human ear is not really capable of discerning any difference between music that’s been recorded at 48kHz and that that’s been recorded at 96kHz. There are people who claim they can tell the difference and
I have to say that I really think they’re bullshitting, they’re kidding themselves.
Interesting to note that the new Leica M 11, which was announced a week ago that has a 60 mega pixel sensor that interestingly, you can set to record an image at 36 mega pixels, or at 18 mega pixels and the only reason they really did that was in order to have the option at a flick of a switch to record at smaller file sizes.
For the speed of operation not only of the camera, but for what you could cram onto its internal memory or the speed with which you could transfer it. I have a 60 mega pixel camera, and I’m used to it takes a little bit longer sometimes to move things across, but the chances are overwhelming that my final developed image is not going to be retained at that kind of resolution.
I would usually end up finally making a master out of it that was a high quality, low compressed JPEG just for ease of movement. So, I might start off with 60 mega pixels and by the time I’m done, I probably got it down to 10 or 20 because at that point, again, you really can’t see the difference. I think we know we’ve reached the point with both audio recording and with photography where increases in the resolution don’t necessarily translate into something that we can visually benefit from.
At the end of the day, you know that the best images that were produced by film cameras in the years leading up to around the end of the millennium when digital really was coming of age are some of the best photographic images ever taken, and yet they don’t stand scrutiny. Compared to your sophisticated smartphone camera, it will probably produce something perhaps not quite as good as an image from a film camera in the 60s or 70s but it’s pretty close.
I don’t think necessarily that the continued improvements are of benefit to the consumer and I think in music that’s pretty obvious and in photography, and yet, I too, am seduced by the latest camera or the latest piece of musical software just because you get lulled into that. You get lured into this is better than the other one but in reality, what you’re doing with it is going to make very, very little difference.
I am an appreciator of old technology and analog technology, craftsmanship engineering, but I bite the bullet and keep up to date with the gadgets because I feel I have to. Either that or I’ve got to employ someone to do all that stuff for me which I don’t want to do.
Let’s talk about the title song, The Zealot Gene, it’s very relevant for what we’ve been going through the last few years.
Well, it’s about the extremes of opinion making. I suppose we’ve gotten used to having freedom of speech in a western democracy and we should value that, but freedom of speech and the right to make your opinions known is something that is very easy to abuse, and particularly through social media, it becomes a tool of divisiveness, of populist behavior of politicians.
I was trying to stress the degree to which things get reduced to black and white to very obvious polarized views and the middle ground tends to be seen as either being boring or not applicable.
A two-party system exists in America or to a large extent in the UK where we’re the same, it’s either left or right, there ain’t no in between, in contrast with much of Europe, where coalition governments are very much the norm and people accept that you’ve got to try and find compromise and work in a way that that serves the interests of society to the best advantage.
You can see that in American politics, the sharp division in society which carries on through so many aspects of life. Sitting on the outside looking back into America, you know, is quite horrifying, but this elegy isn’t just about that.
The album is about different strong emotions of different types and I set out to write a song about each of a number of powerful emotions, for which I made a list of words and then on a whim of fancy looked up biblical references to them to see how the Bible had used some of those simple, strong words like vengeance, greed, jealousy, and then nice stuff, like love and compassion, and companionship and loyalty, and decided to write a song about each one of those.
Some of that biblical reference figured into the result as a point of reference, or as an analogy, or a simile, or a metaphor, and those are the tools of the righteous trade and I take the match and apply them in trying to find something that isn’t just going to be one dimensional.
So, yes, there are some biblical references. Most of the songs, however, are really songs about the world we live in today and it’s interesting from the point of view of the songwriter to have a little more depth and another way of looking at things rather than it just being reflecting the pages of the Washington Post, or CNN.
Years ago, you wrote Skating Away on the Thin Ice of a New Day at a time when scientists were talking about global cooling. It’s kind of ironic, now we’re in the opposite type of situation. You’ve always been really interested or concerned with these types of societal issues, right?
It goes back in my life to my teenage years but certainly in terms of writing music, my first climate change song was written in 1973 and that was Skating Away on the Thin Ice of the New Day, but I’d already got somewhere towards other issues, like the issue of globalization and population growth in the song Locomotive Breath, and obviously, other things to do with organized religion and stuff that perhaps other people weren’t really necessarily writing songs about.
I’m not really any good at writing heart on sleeve songs about me and my emotions, I’m not made that way. I tend to be more of an observer and try to take what I see and hear and notice around me and bring it to life in musical terms, usually via visual images, which I have in my head and that’s what I set out to illustrate in music rather than through painting, drawing or photography, which is what I studied when I was younger. I’m drawn by writing about stuff, real stuff. Some of it’s complicated, controversial or downright boring, but at least I write about real stuff being shown.
Shoshana Sleeping is a remarkable video and I love that song. Can you quickly tell me what that song is about?
I wrote some songs on the album that were about erotic love, and fraternal love, and spiritual love so those were three variations on the idea of love and the erotic love. I just imagined something that didn’t necessarily involve the exchange of bodily fluids, but was more of a visual thing, more of an admiration but respectful, so it’s not a peeping Tom, voyeuristic thing.
I think the nature of the lyrics would suggest that the person singing the song and the object of his focus is that they’re already in some kind of a relationship. It’s just looking at something with admiration and respect, and when I looked up some of that stuff, I immediately stumbled upon Song of Solomon in the Old Testament, some of which is extremely erotic.
I suppose if you copied and pasted some of that and put it on the internet, you might spend the night in jail. So, it’s pretty hardcore in a way, reading between the lines, but you know, again, it’s just a point of reference. I didn’t set out to rewrite passages from the Song of Solomon, it was just a reference, a point of thinking, hmm, that is how that was treated elsewhere.
Are there going to be any North American dates this year?
I sent an e-mail to my agent about a week ago, giving him some options for times in 2023, because all of 2022 is spent. Basically rescheduling all the stuff that should have been 2020 or 2021 and we’re trying to shoehorn everything into this year to catch up with all those shows for which tickets were on sale and we’ve never showed up for work so far.
I got in touch with him to say let’s see if we can get a hold on some venues and make it geographically feasible for two or three short tours in 2023 and hopefully, we’ll manage to do it. It’s tough out there, you know, it’s catching up time. Hopefully we’ll manage to put something together.
For more on Jethro Tull, visit jethrotull.com.